The magnificent Tina Turner died today, although it feels impossible that such a dynamo could be stilled. Like Grace Bumbry, she was an alumna of Sumner High, on the Northside of St. Louis; back then, before the redlining and the strategic disinvestment, it was a jewel of the public school system, among many.
Way back in 2004 I wrote a review of an Ike Turner reissue that was actually an Ike and Tina record in all but name. In it I tried to describe what made her so electrifying to me from the first second I saw and heard her. If you don’t feel like reading, you can just watch this video from 1975, from The Midnight Special show.
Ike Turner His Woman, Her Man (Funky Delicacies)
It was Ike Turner’s curse and blessing that he hooked up with Anna Mae Bullock, a teenage girl from Nutbush, Tenn. The same might be said of her. She started out as a backup singer in Turner’s band, the Kings of Rhythm; was impregnated by one of said Kings; and then, with a snappy new name and a starring role in the revue, married Turner two years after they met. You’ve seen the movie, so you know how great that turned out. As a husband, Turner was monstrous; as a producer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist, he was sublime. If you’re one of those either/or types who believe geniuses have to be nice people, or at least not unrepentant dirtbags, remember that Pablo Picasso, Gustav Mahler, John Milton, and countless other cultural heavies all had their moments of misogyny, too. What do we gain by striking them from the canon?
Tina couldn’t help but outshine her mentor and tormentor. Still, even though she sings lead on every track of His Woman, Her Man, this is Ike Turner’s album, not Ike & Tina’s; if you don’t believe it, just look at the CD cover. Call it ungrateful, call it egomaniacal, but allowing Ike the frontman’s spot in this instance seems less unfair when you consider the couple’s careers: Ike is a god to nerdy collectors, but the hoi polloi know him only as the crazy coke fiend who smacked poor Tina around; his ex, on the other hand, she of the killer gams and the major motion pictures and the string of second-heyday hits in the ’80s, is a superstar. Who among us hasn’t whiled away a summer afternoon pretending to be Tina Turner, baring those famous golden thighs, shaking an imaginary shock of coppery hair, screaming and sighing and strutting and signifying like a sex-starved Pentecostal? Who else could sing like that, each phrase razor-blade bright and so sharp it doesn’t even hurt at first when it slices your heart in two?
But try to hear past Tina’s coruscating wail, the glamour that flares off every gritty syllable, and pause to savor Ike’s instrumental flourishes–the ARP synthesizer fed through a wah-wah pedal, the improbably funky “funk box” (an early drum machine), the oscillator, the countless crazy gadgets he collected at his Bolic Studio. His Woman, Her Man‘s 17 tracks were recorded there in 1970, when Ike, hoping to cultivate a bigger rock audience, began to experiment with what was then cutting-edge technology.
The results are strange but consistently compelling. Depending on your mood, you might crave the percolating country-soul of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary (The Funky Version),” which Ike and Tina later rerecorded (the somewhat less funky version that anyone who’s ever listened to an oldies station knows by heart). Their first rendition thrums and pulses like the dirty river they’re celebrating, a long, sticky shudder of sound. Another cover, “I’ve Got My Mojo Working,” is as viciously sexy as anything the Stones ever recorded, and the percussion (it sounds like kerosene igniting) neatly punctuates Ike’s layers of brilliant guitar filth.
The weirdest cover, though, has to be Alice Cooper’s “Only Women Bleed.” In retrospect, the poignancy of this choice is almost unbearable (she did bleed, of course, and not just during her period); knowing that her abusive husband persuaded her to sing it, against her better judgment, makes it especially painful.
Fortunately, the mood lifts with the next track, “It’s Groovier Across the Line,” a bouncy sex romp that’s one among many great Ike compositions here. Dig the fried-out guitars on “Brain Game” or the squealing, almost unlistenable synths on “Baby Get It On,” the aural equivalent of crystal meth and undoubtedly the best song you’ve never heard. Every listen yields a new favorite, another if-only classic. His Woman, Her Man might not absolve Ike of his personal transgressions, but it secures his status as an icon.
Copyright 2004 by René Spencer Saller This review was originally published in the Illinois Times and later reprinted by the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies (along with my reviews of Wilco and Eminem, it won first place in the annual Association of Alternative Weeklies awards in 2005).
The synesthete and mystic-slash-ecstatic composer and organist Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) has long been a favorite of mine, but lately I find myself thinking a lot about his use of birdsong. He wasn’t the only composer to transcribe birdsong–Mozart and Beethoven did it, too–but no one listened to birdsong more closely or with greater devotion. According to some estimates, he incorporated the songs of more than 320 birds in his music. According to his colleague and sometime frenemy Pierre Boulez, “what he wrote was his imagination of birdsong.” Imagination aside, Messiaen did meticulous research on his beloved subjects and became something of an ornithological expert in France, and certainly one of the leading authorities on bird vocalizations. When he died, at 83, his widow, Yvonne Martenot, commissioned a bird sculpture for his headstone.
I learned a lot about Messiaen’s use of birdsong from this website, to which I’m sure I will return often.
And why have I been thinking about birdsong so much? It’s the Merlin Bird ID app from Cornell Ornithology lab, my new favorite addiction. So far in my backyard I have recorded a good couple dozen different species, and I’m learning to distinguish them without the Sound ID app being on, although I love to have it on anyway just in case it picks up something I miss. Messiaen lacked this app, but he more than made up for it in his listening and transcribing skills.
I could share any number of bird-related links, but I have chosen Catalogue d’oiseaux, composed between 1956 and 1958; he dedicated it to his second wife, former pupil, and forever muse, the brilliant Yvonne Loriod (1924-2010). Her sister, Jeanne, played the recently invented Ondes Martenot in Messiaen’s extraordinary Turangalîla Symphonie, the only symphony in his substantial catalogue.
Catalogue d’oiseaux contains his transcriptions of songs by more than 80 species of birds, all lovingly labeled in the score. The 13 movements feature birds from the eastern French Alps, then the southern Spanish border, then the northern coast. The composition, which takes about 2 hours and 45 minutes to perform in its entirety, is dedicated to Yvonne, like all of Messiaen’s major piano works since about 1942, when he met the former child prodigy in his harmony class, the first he had taught after being imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp. Loriod impressed him from the start by playing his Eight Preludes from memory. (It wasn’t difficult for her in the slightest, thanks to her photographic memory. By 12 she had memorized all of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, as well as Mozart’s concertos. Two years later she had committed Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier and all of Chopin and Schumann to memory.) The pupil and professor fell in love right away, but they couldn’t marry until 1961, two years after Messiaen’s first wife, the violinist and composer Claire Delbos, died as a result of cerebral atrophy, after nearly 20 years of suffering from total amnesia and other cognitive problems. Messiaen, a devout if somewhat unconventional Roman Catholic, had sole custody of their only son and wouldn’t consider divorcing her, even after falling in love with Loriod. He visited Delbos often, even though she never recognized him.
Loriod is fascinating in her own right. She was also a respected composer, although her works, unsurprisingly, were seldom performed, and she remains underprogrammed. She spent most of her life playing and promoting her husband’s music.
The Composer Speaks
“I give bird songs to those who dwell in cities and have never heard them, make rhythms for those who know only military marches or jazz, and paint colors for those who see none.”
********************************* “It’s probable that in the artistic hierarchy birds are the greatest musicians existing on our planet.”
“The birds are the opposite of time. They represent our longing for light, for stars, for rainbows, and for jubilant song.”
*********************************** A bird’s song is something extraordinary, an absolutely impenetrable chaos, a prodigious entanglement.”
*************************************** “[…] In order to translate these timbres, harmonic combinations are absolutely necessary. Even in very fast movements, where I reproduce bird songs either in the orchestra, or on the piano, each note is provided with a chord, not a traditional chord, but a complex of sounds destined to give the timbre of that note. There are as many invented chords as there are notes, which is to say for a bird piece comprising of one or two thousand notes, there are one or two thousand invented chords. It is an enormous task for the imagination….”
“…Birds always sing in a given fashion. They do not know the octave interval. Their melodic lines often recall the inflections of Gregorian chant. Their rhythms are of infinite complexity and variety, but always of perfect precision and clarity.”
The sui generis Brazilian singer Rita Lee died a few days ago, on May 8, and I didn’t want to let the sad occasion go unremarked here, even though I don’t have time to write the tribute she deserves right now. (Filthy lucre! But the good kind.) So I went through the ol’ archives and found a record review that I wrote in 1999 about the great Luaka Bop compilation (curated by David Byrne) Everything is Possible!
The RFT links are always iffy for me, so I’m cutting and pasting the review here instead. And if you don’t have any Os Mutantes records, you could do worse than start with this collection. Really, though, you can’t go wrong with any of it. Back when I did a weekly community radio show on KDHX FM-88, I played a lot of Os Mutantes, probably at least a track or two every month, and found that it always went over well. It’s impossible to quantify but safe to say that Rita Lee’s artistry and charisma are a big part of the timeless appeal.
Everything Is Possible! (Luaka Bop)
By René Spencer Saller on Wed, Jul 21, 1999 at 4:00 am
To say Os Mutantes, a Brazilian trio formed in the late ’60s, were ahead of their time is to understate their singular genius, to suggest that we’ve somehow caught up with them. If only! The music founding members Arnaldo Baptista, Rita Lee Jones, and Sergio Dias created together, a crazy amalgam of psychedelia, bossa nova, experimental rock, samba and pop, is timeless: it sounds as innovative today as it must have sounded 30 years ago, and it will probably sound just as brilliant 30 years from now. Everything Is Possible! is a fabulous compilation of songs the Mutantes recorded between 1968 and 1972, ranging from the trippy, cannabis-inspired “Ando Meio Desligado,” which sets Jones’ silvery vocals against a bass line cribbed from the Zombies’ “Time of the Season,” whacked-out keyboards, and distorted electric guitars, to the exquisite “Fuga No. 11,” with its tinkly bells and majestic Sgt. Pepper-inflected strings and horns. Every song on the CD is at once gorgeous and freakish, catchy and cacophonous, familiar and deeply mysterious. It’s no surprise that fans of the Mutantes include Beck, David Byrne, Stereolab’s Tim Gane, Arto Lindsay, and the late Kurt Cobain (who tried unsuccessfully to convince them to reunite so they could open for Nirvana in 1993).
With Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, Tom Z, and Gal Costa, Os Mutantes were part of the Tropicália movement, an avant-garde group of leftist musicians who sought to revolutionize Brazilian pop culture with the use of electric instruments, subversive humor, far-out stage personas, and surreal arrangements. They pissed off just about everybody, from uptight leftist folkies (think of the guy who screamed “Judas!” during Bob Dylan’s electric tour in 1966) to the draconian military dictatorship, which effectively killed the movement shortly after its inception by arresting Gil and Velosa and forcing them into exile. Even under censorship, however, Os Mutantes continued to record, releasing a handful of albums (the first three, reissued on the Omplatten label, are highly recommended) before they broke up for good in 1978. Live, they dressed up like Sancho Panza, a pregnant bride, and space aliens. They wrote songs with outrageous titles such as “Ave Lucifer” (“Hail Lucifer”). They created their own instruments, from the backwards wah-wah pedal on “Dia 36” to the can of bug spray used in place of a high hat on “Le Premier Bonheur du Jour.” What more could anyone want from a band? They’ll blow your mind, they’ll crack you up, they’ll steal your heart, and they’ll make you believe that everything is possible.
I have been doing this program-book annotation work for about 10 years now, possibly a little longer, since I never seemed to bother paying attention to when I started. But I think I can say with some confidence that this is the first program I have ever written about that came with a warning, to wit: “PLEASE NOTE: Carmina Burana addresses adult themes and contains some adult language.” (Catulli Carmina, also on the program, probably contains more, but I digress.)
At any rate, I write about Orff fairly often, and I always resist the urge to use any of the atrocious name-based puns that flap around in my sorry noggin like deranged bats. But this is my blog–I pay for it entirely myself and do not profit from it in any way that would interest my accountant–and I’m going to share one of my Orfful Orff puns in the headline. I have always felt that it’s supremely unfair to mock people for their given names, but when the composer has been dead for a long time, I think it’s slightly more forgivable. Or less Orfful. (Please let this usage exorcise my demons)
Here are the notes I wrote for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra concert that’s taking place tonight and this weekend at the Meyerson.
Luisi Conducts Orff
by René Spencer Saller
Carl Orff (1895–1982): Catulli Carmina (Songs of Catullus)
If you are alive today, chances are you have been exposed to the influence of Orff. Don’t recognize the name? Doesn’t matter. You probably had a grade-school music teacher who did. Maybe you lucked out and got to attend an elementary school with a collection of Orff instruments, specially chosen percussion instruments tuned to sound harmonious even in (especially in!) untrained hands, and maybe you learned about pitch and meter by playing Orff-prescribed games and using your body in motion to express these abstractions, as my public grade-school classmates and I did, in an inner-ring suburb of St. Louis in the 1970s.
But even if you never took a music class, you can surely hum the main hook to Orff’s “O Fortuna,” from his iconic Carmina Burana, whose ubiquity in the popular culture is, as Alex Ross memorably quipped, “proof that it contains no diabolical message, indeed that it contains no message whatsoever.” Orff’s music might not have a message, but it is an undeniably effective vehicle. His musical language—relentless rhythms, hammered-home melodies, crude harmonies—helped the Nazis sell their poison, and the same music helped sell laundry detergent a generation later.
The late musicologist and critic Richard Taruskin rejected the art-for-art’s-sake argument that music is essentially innocent, pointing out that questions about Orff’s intentions—specifically regarding the use of his music by the Nazis—are irrelevant because “[t]hey allow the deflection of any criticism of his work into irrelevant questions of rights: Orff’s right to compose his music, our right to perform and listen to it. Without questioning either, one may still regard his music as toxic, whether it does its animalizing work at Nazi rallies, in school auditoriums, at rock concerts, in films, in the soundtracks that accompany commercials, or in [the concert hall].” (With no disrespect toward Taruskin’s memory, I’d be astonished if you leave the Meyerson tonight any more animalized than you were upon entering it.)
The commentator Anne-Charlotte Rémond of France Musique recently observed that if Orff’s music isn’t “Nazi art,” it’s art “made for Nazis.” For many that’s a distinction with no real difference. Never mind that Orff never actually joined the Nazi party, or that his music wasn’t universally admired by Nazi listeners; one prominent Nazi critic, in fact, argued that Carmina Burana, with its pungent “jazzy atmosphere” and “incomprehensible” Latin text, reflected the decadence and depravity of the Weimar Republic, not the wholesome athleticism that the Nazis tried to celebrate in their racist and revisionist interpretation of ancient history. But with a few vocal exceptions, the Nazis loved Carmina Burana, programming it repeatedly until the regime was defeated after World War II.
If not quite a one-hit wonder, Orff remains a somewhat enigmatic, even polarizing figure. He completed CatulliCarmina in 1943, two years after receiving the commission and about six years after his breakthrough work, Carmina Burana. CatulliCarmina received its premiere during World War II. With Trionfo di Afrodite, from 1953, the three works form a conceptual trilogy, but the two later installments never took off like their predecessor and are virtually unknown today. But whether acknowledged or not, Orff’s influence can be heard in the driving rhythms of John Adams, the hypnotic ostinatos of Glass and Cage. There’s a reason that generations of listeners have found his music so compelling, and it has little to do with politics or anything that cerebral: Orff made music that speaks to the body and to the subconscious.
Although Orff had loved the classics since childhood, he was 35 years old when he first encountered Catullus’s Odi et Amo (c. 85), while on holiday at Lake Garda, in northern Italy. He saw a postcard with the poem on it and instantly heard it as music in his head. When he returned to Germany, he bought an edition of Catullus poems and chose 10 to set for mixed choir, which he then edited in a two-volume set titled Catulli Carmina, in 1931 and 1932, respectively.
When his Carmina Burana grew increasingly popular, theater directors requested more musical material to fill out their programs, so Orff revised the score, adding and deleting certain poems and surrounding them with a “framing” story, which places the drama within a drama, enhancing the artificiality of the narrative. The new version of Catulli Carmina—which he now called ludi scaenici, or a scenic cantata, and no longer a collection of songs for mixed choir—premiered on November 6, 1943, at the Leipzig Opera.
A Closer Listen
The cantata contains three parts: a prelude, a central section made up of Catullus poems, and a short postlude that repeats the main ideas of the prelude. Orff scored it for a full mixed choir, soprano and tenor soloists (portraying Lesbia and Catullus, respectively), and an entirely percussive orchestra, thought to be inspired by Stravinsky’s Les noces: four pianos, four timpani, castanets, maracas, antique cymbal, tam-tam, lithophone, metallophone, two glockenspiels, xylophone, tenor xylophone, and more. The orchestra plays only in the prelude and postlude; in the play-within-the-play, the soloists are accompanied only by the chorus, which also functions as a traditional Greek chorus.
Orff uses Catullus poems for the bulk of the text, but he wrote the prelude, the framing device that turns the selected poems into a play within a play. The plot, such as it is, involves a group of exuberant young horndogs who, in the prelude, describe what they want to do to one another in pornographic detail, if not quite in grammatical Latin. Then a chorus of elderly crabasses propose a lecture in the form of dramatized Catullus poems, all designed to prove conclusively that love is for losers and nothing lasts. The young folk agree to listen attentively.
The internal play begins with the entrance of Catullus, accompanied by the chorus singing Odi et amo (“I hate and I love”). When his beloved Lesbia appears, he sings Vivamus, mea Lesbia, atque amemus (“let us live, my Lesbia, and love”). Eventually, though, Lesbia proves untrue by dancing in front of a tavern, loitering on corners, and engaging in other activities for which Catullus tries to slut-shame her. Conflicted, he sleeps outside her front door and dreams of their reconciliation. Meanwhile, the real-life Lesbia sings him a lullaby while he sleeps (Dormi, dormi, dormi ancora—note that it’s in Italian, not Latin, a sign that she’s a modern lady). But Catullus wakes with a jolt when he hears the bass voice, and he experiences an epiphany: his friend Caelius, to whom he has often confided, is Lesbia’s secret lover—cuckolded by his best pal!
After much anguished back and forth with the pleading Lesbia, Catullus decides that her actions have ruined him and he can neither love nor hate her now. The score boasts several memorable passages, including some bel canto soprano numbers worthy of Delibes. Then, in one of the best punch lines in the history of the cantata form, Orff subverts the entire spectacle by showing, in the postlude, that the production was a waste of time. No longer willing to endure the sour old dudes and their strange diatribes, the young people blithely resume hooking up.
After the successful premiere of his scenic cantata Carmina Burana, Orff issued the following instructions to his music publisher:
“Everything I have written to date, and which you have, unfortunately, printed, can be destroyed. With Carmina Burana, my collected works begin.”
First performed by the Oper Frankfurt on June 8, 1937, Orff’s Carmina Burana is based on a collection of poems by a motley assortment of itinerant monks, scholars, and other speakers of Latin, the lingua franca of the medieval age. Old French and Middle-High German, along with macaronic hybrids, add linguistic variety to these stubbornly secular, often bawdy verses, which touch on the corruption of the clergy, the benefits of intoxication, the sorrow of love, the glories of nature, and the pitiless wheel of fortune that determines our destinies. The original manuscript dates to the early 13th century. Lost for centuries before being rediscovered at a Benedictine abbey near Munich, the score was first published in 1847.
With the help of Michel Hofmann, his fellow classics enthusiast, Orff selected two dozen poems from the collection and set them to music. “It’s not sophisticated, not intellectual,” he wrote, “There is a spiritual power behind my work, and that’s why it is accepted throughout the world.”
Orff In and Out of Time
Another way to understand Orff’s work is by understanding Orff, who was both a product of his culture and also something of an aberration.
Born in Munich, which was then part of imperial Wilhelmine Germany, Orff was brought up in a Bavarian military family, in a culture that understood itself to be the natural extension of both Athens and Rome, an aspirational lineage connecting the not-yet-unified Germany with the Golden Age of the Greco-Roman empire. Even as a young composer in post-WWI Germany, Orff, who studied at the Munich Academy of Music from 1912–14, was a devoted antiquarian. Although he set the occasional text by a contemporary or near-contemporary, such as the unapologetically leftist German playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht, or by canonical German poets such as Heinrich Heine and Friederich Hölderlin, Orff increasingly preferred engaging with centuries-old Latin and Archaic Greek texts by Catullus and Sappho, the primary sources for Carmina catullus and Trionfo, respectively. For his musical enjoyment he preferred poring over the scores of J.S. Bach, Monteverdi, and other early composers of choral music. And although his parents were devout Roman Catholics, Orff lost his religion fairly early and chose not to have his own daughter baptized.
Like most of his non-Jewish colleagues, Orff remained in Germany during the rise of the Third Reich, although he never went so far as to join the Nazi Party. He was drafted into the German Army in August 1917 but was quickly incapacitated in a trench collapse and spent months recovering from his serious injuries. When he was healthy again, he began to work in various administrative capacities for opera houses while studying music and dance and developing his pedagogical theory, which he called Schulwerk. Although he associated with a leader of the Resistance who was later executed, he distanced himself from politics, mostly by keeping to himself and making the kind of art that wasn’t likely to endanger himself or his family. He wasn’t notably brave, and he was no doubt relieved when the Nazis put him on a list of approved composers they called the Gottbegnadeten (Those Graced by God, or Those with God-Given Talent—which would no doubt be more impressive as a title if Nazis hadn’t bestowed it).
Though not technically a Nazi, Orff was a member of the Reichsmusikkammer, a requirement for all active musicians in the Third Reich. And despite any reservations he might have expressed privately, he did agree to compose new music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream to replace Mendelssohn’s classic score, which the authorities had banned on account of the composer’s Jewish ancestry—never mind that Mendelssohn had been a devout Lutheran since childhood. And never mind that one of Orff’s Catholic grandparents was a former Jew turned Catholic. The Nazis weren’t ideologically consistent, and they didn’t need to be. As with any genocidal regime, approval was granted or denied according to the whims of the powerful.
After completing his denazification process in 1946, Orff was rated “Grey C, acceptable,” a designation intended for Germans who were “compromised by their actions during the Nazi period but not subscribers to Nazi doctrine.” He married four times and was thrice divorced. His only child, Godela Orff, was born in 1921, to his first wife, the singer Alice Solscher. Although the couple separated about six months after Godela’s birth and divorced in 1927, Orff assumed primary custody of his daughter when her mother moved to Australia in 1930. Orff’s relationship with Godela was often rocky, with periods of estrangement, but they reconciled about a decade before his death, at age 86, from cancer. His tombstone, which is located in the Andechs monastery, bears the Latin inscription Summus Finis (the Ultimate End), a quotation from the end of his final work, De temporum fine comoedia.
A Closer Listen
Orff’s score bears a lengthy Latin subtitle, which, in translation, reads: “Profane songs to be sung by soloists and chorus with an accompaniment of instruments and magic tableaux.” By turns crude and celestial, the songs reflect Orff’s passion for the plainchant of the Middle Ages and early Renaissance. As anyone who has ever sung it will attest, some of it amounts to vocal-cord torture. The aria Olem lacus colueram, for instance, is sung almost entirely in falsetto, straining the poor solo tenor’s voice to the breaking point—which makes sense when you remember that the lines are sung from the perspective of a roasting swan. A wildly erotic passage in “Cours d’amour” forces the soprano soloist to reach beyond the upper limits of her range, creating an exquisite tension.
“In all my work,” Orff wrote, “my final concern is not with musical but with spiritual exposition.” This claim might seem at odds with the visceral, almost orgiastic sonic thrust of Carmina Burana, but Orff, like the medieval poets who inspired him, knew that the spiritual and the profane are spokes of the same cosmic wheel. Copyright 2023 by René Spencer Saller
It was my great privilege to write the program notes for the world premiere of Katherine Balch’s whisper concerto for Cello and Orchestra. If you’re in Dallas or going to be in Dallas this coming weekend, you should by all means attempt to secure tickets to this event and go. Associate DSO Conductor (and former SLSO Associate Conductor) Gemma New leads the Dallas Symphony in what promises to be an exciting (and perhaps even riotous) springtime ritual.
You can read my notes on the excellent Dallas Symphony Orchestra website, but I included some bonus material that got snipped for space, and I have learned my lesson with links (which don’t seem to be as permanent as I had naively imagined when I started this website). This also gives me the chance to include some cherished photos. I also decided to reframe the concert title and shift the emphasis from The Rite of Spring (no offense to Stravinsky, who I’m confident cares not a whit whether he gets top billing) to the world premiere of the whisper concerto. I understand that the orchestra, like all 21st-century ensembles, has to consider what sells tickets, but as a blogger who is entirely self-financed, I do not.
Speaking of which, and before I forget, here are Balch and soloist Zlatomir Fung in conversation about whisper concerto.
I also want to recommend Balch’s website, which is among the best I have ever seen. You can actually peruse the score for the whisper concerto and marvel over the precise performance instructions and notes on instrumentation. I know people throw around the word “genius” way too often, but if Balch isn’t a genius, I’m not sure if the designation even matters.
New Conducts Borodin, Balch, and Stravinsky
by Rene Spencer Saller
Alexander Porfiriyevich Borodin (1833–1887): Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor
Like Tchaikovsky, who was seven years younger, Borodin was born in Saint Petersburg and died unexpectedly at age 53. The two composers knew each other somewhat but traveled in different circles. Borodin, a prominent professor of chemistry, moonlighted as a member of the MoguchayaKuchka, or “Mighty Handful”: five influential composers who dominated Saint Petersburg’s musical culture from the mid-1860s until the early 1880s. Besides Borodin, “the Five,” as they were often called, consisted of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Modest Mussorgsky, César Cui, and Mily Balakirev. Only Balakirev had the luxury of composing full-time; the others had day jobs. Borodin, the illegitimate son of a Georgian prince, published major treatises on acids and aldehydes.
“I do not seek recognition as a composer for I am somehow ashamed of admitting to my compositional activities,” the research chemist wrote in a letter. “For me this is a relaxation, a pastime, an indulgence that distracts me from my principal work.”
After Borodin’s death from a sudden brain aneurysm, a monument was erected in Saint Petersburg. The statue honored his scientific achievements—his music was admired by connoisseurs but still mostly unknown to the general public. His most ambitious work, Prince Igor, remained unfinished at his death. Even though Borodin didn’t live to complete the opera, he was alive in 1879, when Rimsky-Korsakov conducted a performance of its climactic Act II closing number, Polovtsian Dances.
Borodin’s friends Alexander Glazunov and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov relied on their memories and the late composer’s towering piles of papers to complete Prince Igor, a monumental effort at which Borodin had been plugging away, on and off, for the past 18 years. The world premiere of the full opera took place on November 4, 1890, at the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg.
A Closer Listen
Especially for an amateur composer, Borodin had remarkably strong melodic instincts, a knack for vivid orchestration, and a disciplined work ethic. Like all his best work, the score for Prince Igor enlivens a staunch nationalism with exotic, even mildly subversive touches. Based on a scenario by Vladimir Stasov, Borodin’s self-penned libretto involves a medieval Russian prince who is defeated by a tribe of Tatar invaders, the Polovtsians, and held captive—although treated as an honored guest—until he makes a daring escape.
Prince Igor, Borodin dryly observed, is “essentially a national opera, interesting only to us Russians, who love to steep our patriotism in the sources of our history, and to see the origins of our nationality again on the stage.” A dedicated researcher, he studied the culture of the region, particularly its songs and dances, derived from a diverse mixture of influences and folk traditions. His musical portrait of the Polovtsians, epitomized by The Polovtsian Dances, incorporates not only authentic Caucasian tunes but also Moorish melodies by way of North Africa and the Middle East.
In its original context, as a ballet sequence, The Polovtsian Dances closes Act II of Prince Igor. For this hook-happy show-stopper, Khan Konchak presents a menu of sensuous splendors available to the prince once he consents to stop fighting the Polovtsians. As a parade of sultry concubines and catamites sashay and shimmy for the barbarian chief, along with his court and captives, Borodin tempts the ear with a seductive array of dances: ambiguously ethnic (or “Orientalist,” as postcolonial critics might argue); rich in orchestral color and harmonic interest; rhythmically complex but still conducive to graceful human movement.
In addition to serving as an exhilarating concert opener, as it does here, The Polovtsian Dances inspired some of the music in the 1953 musical Kismet, which turned the tantalizing woodwind-sung main theme into “Stranger in Paradise,” a monster Broadway hit that enjoyed even greater success when the musical was repackaged as a star-studded MGM movie. Crooned by pop idols, hummed in countless showers, whistled on the way to work, Borodin’s music is much more famous than the man who created it. Anonymous ubiquity: the hallmark of a true classic.
Katherine Balch (b. 1991): whisper concerto: for Solo Cello and Orchestra
The winner of the 2020–21 Rome Prize at the American Academy in Rome, Balch was nominated for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s 2020 Career Advancement Award by violinist Hilary Hahn. Balch, who earned advanced degrees in music from Yale and Columbia, is currently a visiting assistant professor of composition at the Yale School of Music. Her work has been commissioned and performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, L’Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, the London Sinfonietta, and Ensemble Intercontemporain, among many other prominent orchestras and ensembles.
Dubbed “some kind of musical Thomas Edison” by the San Francisco Chronicle, Balch constructs distinctive sound worlds unique to each new composition. The prolific young composer engineers an eclectic but efficient sonic code, precisely calibrated to the needs of a particular project, incorporating everything from toy instruments to tuned crystal water goblets, earthenware pots, and pianos prepared according to painstakingly detailed instructions involving color-coded graphs and elaborate symbols.
In the score for Balch’s new Dallas Symphony Orchestra co-commission whisper concerto, every element of the sound is mapped to the minutest detail, right down to images of all the specific objects that she used to modify the strings of the prepared piano. She provides specific instructions for most of the other instruments, too, whether it’s col legno battuto bowing for the strings, which requires the musician to strike the strings with the wooden part of the bow normally held by the fingers, or a passage where the cello’s bow is swapped out for a bamboo chopstick. Elsewhere she calls for nontraditional variations on traditional techniques such as pizzicato or flutter tonguing. In some glorious version of an afterlife, John Cage and Henry Cowell are surely smiling.
Composed in 2022, whisper concerto is true to Balch’s style in that it sounds at once perfectly idiomatic and utterly strange. Beautiful—sometimes even conventionally tonal—melodies commune lovingly with shameless noise. Virtuosity gives way to entropy only to catch its breath and come back weirder and wilder, transformed by the volatile power of orchestral collaboration. Shards and fragments of free jazz mysteriously reassemble themselves, against all odds, into a peculiar chorale.
“The end of my concerto deals with elements of Ligeti’s noise-based cadenza, but in a different, more tonal context,” Balch explained in a recent interview with Rita Fernandes of The Strad magazine.
One challenge that she confronted while composing her cello concerto was maintaining some kind of fruitful equilibrium between the solo instrument and the orchestra. ‘The cello’s low register can be difficult to balance, and I really wanted to honor the integrity of the instrument’s tessitura,” she told Fernandes. “It’s never a battle between cello and orchestra. I want them to fit together in a way that provokes intimacy between them.”
The Composer Speaks
“whisper concerto is named after the bristling, agitato ‘whisper cadenza’ of György Ligeti’s cello concerto. Like Artifacts, my concerto for violin and orchestra, this piece is not meant as a showcase for cello alone, but for the orchestra as a whole, which reacts to and augments the soloist.
“whisper concerto is a working out of several musical contradictions I find expressively intriguing: how can an andante be agitato? A presto, dolcissimo? How can a cadenza play (and be playful) with the evolving demands and expectations of performer virtuosity? How can a simple chorale become the shadow of a desperate, fluttering, noisy scorrevole? In folding together these musical opposites, I hope to have captured some of the kinetic virtuosity of Zlatomir’s playing, for whom this concerto is dedicated, along with his kindness, playfulness, gentleness of spirit, and warmth.” —Katherine Balch
Some Terms Defined
Andante: Moderately slow tempo, as in a walking pace Agitato: In an agitated manner
Cadenza: An improvised or composed ornamental passage designed for virtuosic display and typically performed in a rhythmically loose style Chorale: Hymn or psalm form harmonized according to a set of conventional procedures Dolcissimo: Very sweet or soft Presto: Quick
Scorrevole: Gliding or flowing from note to note
Tessitura: Italian for “texture,” the term refers to the range of notes or general pitch level at which the voice (of the singer or instrument) most comfortably resides, without strain or undue challenge.
Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971): Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring)
Without the efforts of some crucial creative partners, Stravinsky’s iconic ballet Le Sacre du printemps (The Rite of Spring) would not exist in its current form—or perhaps at all.
Among the Russian composer’s most essential collaborators were three of his fellow countrymen: the painter and archaeologist Nicholas Roerich, who helped develop the two-part scenario and to whom the score is dedicated; the choreographer and impresario Sergei Diaghilev, who commissioned it for Les Ballets Russes; and Vaslav Nijinsky, the insurgent young choreographer whose savage kinetic language may have actually provoked the riot for which Stravinsky’s music is credited.
Stravinsky was in his late 20s and still relatively unknown when he began working with Diaghilev. The proud young composer almost passed on the opportunity after Diaghilev was late to their first meeting. Just as Stravinsky was about to slip out the street exit, Diaghilev hurried to stop him. “I’ve often wondered if I’d opened that door,” Stravinsky told his biographer, “whether I would have written The Rite of Spring.“
A Pagan Sacrifice
Sometime in 1910, while polishing the score of his first Diaghilev commission, The Firebird, Stravinsky was distracted by “a fleeting vision, which came to me as a complete surprise.” According to his own account, he imagined “a solemn pagan rite [wherein] sage elders, seated in a circle, watched a young girl dance herself to death. They were sacrificing her to propitiate the god of spring.”
Instead of pursuing this idea immediately, he finished The Firebird and began his next ballet, the folk-inflected, pathos-drenched Petrushka. It wasn’t until July 1911 that he resumed work on what eventually became The Rite of Spring (with the subtitle “Pictures from Pagan Russia”). He and Roerich hashed out the story and discussed potential dance movements. That September, back at his family’s estate in Ustilug, Stravinsky was eager to plunge into the score. “I’ve already started composing,” he wrote. “I’ve sketched the prelude, and I’ve gone on and also sketched the ‘Divination with Twigs’; I’m terribly excited! The music is coming out fresh.”
He continued to work on it the following winter, in Switzerland, finishing the first act in late February. In a letter to a friend he exclaimed, “it’s as if 20 years, not two, have passed since the composition of Firebird!” That March he traveled to Monte Carlo and played the first part of the score for Diaghilev and Nijinsky as a piano reduction. They’re “wild about it,” he boasted to his mother.
Pierre Monteux, who would later conduct the infamous premiere, wasn’t so favorably impressed. “I was convinced he was raving mad,” the Frenchman confessed. “The very walls resounded as Stravinsky pounded away, occasionally stamping his feet and jumping up and down…. My only comment at the end was that such music would surely cause a scandal.”
After completing the orchestration in spring 1913, Stravinsky traveled to Paris to oversee the rehearsals. The dancers and musicians found the piece so daunting that an unprecedented number of practice sessions were scheduled. The exotic tonalities and erratic rhythms notwithstanding, the dress rehearsal went well.
The actual premiere was a different story. The opening bassoon solo—written entirely above middle C—upset a very vocal contingent of the audience. Almost immediately, the patrons were shouting, blowing whistles, and shoving one another. Because the dancers couldn’t hear the orchestra over the fracas, they fell out of sync. Diaghilev screamed from the wings and Stravinsky panicked, but Monteux soldiered on. He was, in Stravinsky’s approving assessment, as “impervious and nerveless as a crocodile.” “It is still almost incredible to me,” the composer later remarked, “that he actually brought the orchestra through to the end.”
The great German baritone Matthias Goerne recently performed selections from Mahler’s Wunderhorn songs with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Fabio Luisi. I wrote about the program, taking some time to digress about the so-called War of the Romantics, one of the dumbest but funniest culture wars ever to consume the second half of any century.
I had hoped to include some supplementary boxes, but I fear those might have been cut from the program, so here is the (unedited by anyone but myself) version of the notes.
Luisi Conducts Mahler and Brahms
By René Spencer Saller
Gustav Mahler (1860–1911): Selections from Des Knaben Wunderhorn
Mahler accepted his first paid conducting gig when he was only 20, presiding over third-rate operettas at a spa in Upper Austria. From then on, the ambitious and cash-strapped composer spent his entire life as a professional conductor, holding posts in Ljubljana, Kassel, Prague, Leipzig, Budapest, Hamburg, Vienna, and, at the end of his life, New York City. From the podium, he demanded much from each musician but gave even more, responding to the orchestra with an electric empathy and an intense physicality. Widely considered among the greatest conductors in the world, he applied his galvanizing intelligence to other composers’ scores, reinvigorating the repertoire and setting the interpretive bar impossibly high for future generations of professional maestros.
By 1888, when he began his Second Symphony, he was, if not as famous as he would someday become, widely well-regarded—as a conductor. As a composer, however, he felt misunderstood and undervalued, the eternal underdog. He wasn’t wrong. The disastrous premiere of his First Symphony in late 1889 hit him hard. Because of certain ugly socio-political and cultural realities—most obviously, an antisemitism so pervasive that it’s only remarkable in its occasional absence—Mahler’s career would be rocky, never mind his formidable talent and drive and his voluntary conversion to Catholicism.
After receiving a terminal diagnosis of heart disease in 1907, Mahler resolved to compose as much music as possible, of the highest possible quality, culminating in a flurry of late-life masterpieces, including Das Lied von der Erde, Symphony No. 9, and the unfinished Tenth. And despite being fired regularly for factors unrelated to his job performance, he kept conducting, leading the New York Philharmonic in the last two years of his life. He died at age 50, from complications of the heart condition that had been diagnosed four years earlier.
In Mahler’s distinctive sound world, song and symphony are closely intertwined, even interdependent. His first four symphonies are called his Wunderhorn symphonies because they incorporate so many of his settings of texts from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn). This fanciful collection of German folk poetry, originally published between 1805 and 1808, was praised by literary luminaries like Goethe, who wrote of his hope that “this little book would find a place in every house where bright and vital people make their home…. Best of all, [that] this volume might lie on the piano of the amateur or master of musical composition so that these songs might come into their own by being matched to familiar and traditional melodies, that they might have appropriate tunes fitted to them, or that, God willing, they will inspire new and significant melodies.”
Eventually consisting of three volumes and a thousand or so poems, the Wunderhorn collection did indeed inspire a generation or two of Romantic composers and their successors. Among many others, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms, Richard Strauss, and Schoenberg all wrote settings of these provocative and often grotesque fairy-tale poems, which touch on everything from famine to frivolous flirtation; from doomed drummers to fish prophets; from the magical riverine journey of a mower’s golden ring to the brutal execution of a child. The tales are spooky and preachy, pious and violent, funny and profound. For years they ignited Mahler’s imagination like nothing else.
Between 1887 and 1902, the year of his momentous marriage to Alma Schindler and the completion of his Fifth Symphony, Mahler set more than a dozen poems from the Wunderhorn collection for voice and piano or orchestra, and a half-dozen or so of these story-songs surfaced in the first five symphonies. In 1899 he published 12 of the Wunderhorn songs in the collection titled Humoresken (Humoresques)—informally, and confusingly, also known as Mahler’s “Songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn.” Although Mahler had originally conceived these songs for voice and orchestra, he was shrewd enough to create alternative arrangements for voice and piano, tailored to the growing sheet-music market for amateur musicians.
Not all of the poems in the Wunderhorn collection are actual folk relics; some appear to be imitations or homages. The two editors, Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano, could also be described as authors—not so much disciplined collectors and compilers as resourceful recyclers and fabulists. The authenticity of any given tale mattered less to them than its entertainment value, and if they needed to invent certain details in the service of a greater truth, so be it. At any rate, Mahler, who was almost as sensitive to poetry as he was to music, took additional liberties with his source material, adding lines and verses as he saw fit. In fact, he wrote his own text for the 1892 song “Das himmlische Leben” (The Heavenly Life), which also served as the penultimate movement of his Fourth Symphony.
In addition to “Das himmlische Leben,” five other Wunderhorn songs functioned as pivotal movements in Mahler’s symphonies, including two featured in this concert: “Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt” and “Urlicht,” which did double duty in his Second Symphony as the Scherzo and fourth movement, respectively. Nicknamed the “Resurrection” Symphony, Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 in C Minor deals with death and rebirth, in the Christian tradition.
Born into a large and poor Jewish family, Mahler was still technically Jewish at the time of its composition. His interest in the spiritual aspects of Christianity predated his official conversion to Catholicism, in 1897, when he was 37 years old. Part of the reason he needed to make his faith a matter of public record was pragmatism, or self-preservation: the ever-worsening antisemitism of late 19th-century Austria made it impossible for a Jewish man, even an eminently qualified one, to land the desirable conducting posts, especially in Vienna, where Richard Wagner’s widow Cosima, the illegitimate daughter of Franz Liszt, and a vicious antisemite, still exerted enormous influence.
A Closer Listen
1. “Rheinlegendchen” (Little Rhine Legend). Set in G major, with a 3/8 meter reminiscent of a Ländler, the richly evocative “Rheinlegenchen” is lightly scored—just a wind quintet with strings. It was so popular at its first performance that the audience demanded an immediate encore. The lyrics are sung from the perspective of a lovelorn young mower, who imagines what might happen to a ring tossed into the Rhine. The ring eventually ends up in the belly of a fish served at the King’s table, at which point, the mower predicts, the absent sweetheart will be unable to resist returning the ring—and returning the mower’s love. Throughout the song, Mahler sprinkles folk-inflected, improvisational-sounding riffs and licks, imparting a rollicking, rural flavor to the “little Rhine legend.”
The world premiere of the song took place at the Hamburg Konzerthaus, in October 1893, sung by Paul Bulss and performed by the Julius Laubesche Kapelle under Mahler’s own baton.
2. Composed in the summer of 1898 and published the following year, “Wo die schönen Trompete blasen (Where the Splendid Trumpets Sound), in C minor, is a strangely subdued song in which the singer assumes two roles: an ardent young woman and the soldier she loves, who may be a ghost—or, if not yet a ghost, a future ghost. Mahler contrasts the swooning, almost hallucinatory waltz of the lovers’ union with the doomy, inexorable 2/4 beat of the marching army, with its “splendid trumpets,” which are typically and unexpectedly soft when not actually muted. The song was first performed, along with “Das irdische Leben,” on January 14, 1900, sung by soprano Selma Kurz, with Mahler conducting the Vienna Philharmonic.
3. Completed in 1892 and first performed that December, in Berlin, “Verlor’ne Müh” (Wasted Effort) is another he-said-she-said dialogue song, with the singer again performing both male and female roles. Mahler deploys a lilting, Ländler-like 3/8 rhythm, along with sassy interjections and imitations. The comical lyrics are in the Swabian dialect (related to Alsatian and other Swiss-adjacent forms of German) and dramatize a persistent village maiden’s failed seduction of a young man, who not only rejects her offerings of “tender morsels,” “nibbles,” and “my heart,” but persists in insulting her, with increasing harshness, as a “foolish girl.” Her beloved, an obstinate and unloving prig, might get the last word, but the maiden gets the last laugh. (It’s safe to say that most of us, including the long-dead Mahler, would greatly prefer a leisurely meal with this agreeable, lamb-tending creature than another negging session with Buzzkill Boy.)
4. Mahler composed “Das irdische Leben” (The Earthly Life) sometime after early spring 1892. He shortened the source poem, originally titled “Verspätung” (Delay), but retained the haunting poignancy that befits a song about a child who begs his mother for bread until he starves to death: “And when at last the bread was baked/The child lay dead upon the bier.” Divided—and typically muted—strings convey the bereaved parent’s torment, that churning grief and choking helplessness. Early on, Mahler conceived of his Fourth Symphony (1899–1901) as a six-movement work that would also feature “Das irdische Leben” (The Earthly Life). This gritty ballad, a kind of proto-Kindertotenlied, serves as a dramatic counterpart to the celestial joy and abundance of “Das himmlische Leben” (The Heavenly Life), the spiritual climax of the Fourth Symphony.
5. Set in the remote key of D-flat major, “Urlicht” (Primal Light) functions in the Second Symphony as a transition, or a kind of introduction, to the finale. Mahler composed it in 1892 and orchestrated it the next year. His tempo indication is “Sehr feierlich, aber schlicht” (Very solemn, but simple). Originally written for mezzo-soprano or contralto, the singer’s radiant innocence transforms a simple declaration of faith into a passionate rhapsody. Listen to the winds curling around the singer’s voice; they seem to complete his thoughts, much as birdsong bends the night sky toward morning:
I am from God, I want to return to God. The loving God will grant me a little light, Will light my way to blissful life eternal and bright.”
6. Mahler repurposed “Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt” (Saint Anthony’s Sermon to the Fish,” in C minor, as the third-movement scherzo of his Second Symphony. Composed in summer 1893 and set in a dreamy 3/8, the song is marked “In ruhiger fließender Bewegung,” which in English means “In quietly flowing motion,” a fair description of its sound, if not its ironic humor. A magically twisty clarinet melody slips through skittery cross-currents of pizzicato and bowed strings as the singer describes the aquatic audience’s rapt attention to Saint Anthony. Like any good joke that lands, the song builds suspense through repetition, concluding with this devastating punchline on misplaced piety:
The crabs still go backwards,
The cod are still bloated,
The carp are still gorging,
The sermon’s forgotten.
The sermon was pleasing.
All stay as they were.
7. The intense and jarring “Revelge” (Reveille), also in C minor, depicts a death march: rattle-trap drums and strident trumpets, stomping feet and rotting corpses. The soldiers might as well be zombies, grimly enacting their pointless rituals at every predawn reveille, compulsively charging and slaughtering. The speaker is an army drummer, an adolescent, in fact, who has been wounded in battle and is now being left for dead, even trod on, by his marching comrades. The young drummer’s lament is all the more heartbreaking for its growing self-awareness:
“I will well play my drum
or else I will lose myself completely.
The brothers, plentiful sowed
tralali, tralalei, tralalera,
they lie as if they’ve been mowed.”
A revenant, he returns to his darling’s home, not yet aware that he’s dead. (Listen for the col legno strings, meant to mimic the grinding, scraping sound of bone on bone.) That morning, in a ghoulish twist, the drummer’s bones and those of his comrades appear arranged “in rank and file, like tombstones” at her front door, with the drum out in front “so that she can see him.” Mahler composed this song in July 1899.
8. Composed in summer 1901, around the time that he was beginning his Fifth Symphony, “Der Tambourg’sell” (The Drummer Boy) was the last of Mahler’s Wunderhorn settings—and wouldn’t you know it, it’s another song in C minor from the perspective of a doomed young drummer. This time the singer and first-person narrator is in prison, not underfoot on a bloody battleground, but he’s dying all the same: marched from his cell to the gallows. Never mind that he’s still a child—too young to fight, but old enough to be killed. The music, a protracted funeral march, is somber, even sepulchral.
As with “Revelge,” Mahler conjures up all manner of spooky effects from col legno strings. In an elegiac address to everything he can see on his march to the scaffold, the singer ticks off a series of farewells, repetitively, almost self-soothingly—think Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon, only infinitely sadder—before closing with a pair of final, heartbreakingly understated “Gute Nacht”s. Mahler’s indications call for the first “good night” to start loud, then go suddenly quiet; the second is supposed to be sung “mit brechender Stimme” (with broken voice).
If all this sounds a bit morbid, it might help to remember that Mahler had almost died that February, when he woke in bed to find the sheets soaked in blood from a hemorrhage. He would marry the next year, but he would die within the decade, after suffering the grievous loss of his eldest daughter, Maria, who succumbed to scarlet fever.
Col legno is a shorter form of the musical term col legno battuto, which is Italian for “with the wood being struck.” It’s essentially an instruction from the composer to strike or, more rarely, scrape the violin, viola, cello, or bass strings using the wooden part of the bow, normally used as the handle, instead of gliding the hair part over the strings in the conventional way. The col legno technique turns the stringed instrument into a distinctive percussion instrument. Hector Berlioz famously exploited the hollow, unearthly timbre in Symphonie fantastique, transforming the strings into cavorting skeletons.
In May 1883, Brahms turned 50. Richard Wagner, his esteemed adversary, had died a few months earlier; Clara Schumann, his intimate friend, cheerleader, and steadfast muse, was nearly 64 and quite frail; he had already outlived many friends and musical mentors. Yet he was robustly healthy, if somewhat fat, and had a lust for life—as well as for young women. That summer he followed one of them, the contralto Hermine Spies, to Wiesbaden, on the Rhine. There he composed his Symphony No. 3. It had been six years since his previous symphony, another product of a single fertile summer.
Although he continued to tweak the score until its publication, the Third was a triumph from the start. After he sent the score to Clara, she gushed, “From start to finish one is wrapped about with the mysterious charm of the woods and forests…. [By the finale] one’s beating heart is soon calmed down again for the final transfiguration which begins with such beauty in the development that words fail me!”
Except for the predictable demonstration from the Wagner Club, whose members briefly disrupted the Vienna premiere, Brahms’s Symphony No. 3 was hailed as a masterpiece by audiences and critics alike.
A Closer Listen
The shortest of Brahms’s four symphonies, the Third is formally rigorous and tonally inventive, thematically integrated and rhythmically complex. Unusually, all four movements end softly, even the seemingly heroic finale. The first movement begins with two audacious wind chords, a strong F major succeeded by a more tentative diminished chord—preparation for a series of wrenching major and minor shifts. Harmonic ambiguities and metrical instabilities abound. The figure that haunts all four movements, in various configurations, is the bass line: F–A-flat–F, Brahms’s personal motto. It stands for “Frei aber froh” (Free but happy), a play on his friend Joseph Joachim’s motto “Free but lonely.”
The more lyrical main melody is borrowed from Robert Schumann’s “Rhenish” Symphony. First presented by the strings, this theme imbues the entire work. It is an obvious tribute to Brahms’s late friend, the man who hailed the 20-year-old tavern pianist from Hamburg as the next Beethoven and set him up as his musical proxy in the so-called War of the Romantics—as the foil to Wagner and all that he represented. But as biographer Jan Swafford persuasively argues, Brahms’s Third recalls another Rhine besides Schumann’s, another monumental forefather: Wagner’s “atmospheric string textures,” his “grand triadic leitmotifs and themes” echo throughout. Ever the reconciler, Brahms united his mentor and his supposed rival in a symphony that ultimately stands for nothing beyond itself.
Aside from the occasional duel, the War of the Romantics was mostly bloodless, but it galvanized concert-music culture during the second half of the 19th century. Every critic, composer, musician, and reasonably well-educated person in Central Europe wound up in one camp or the other. The opposing sides made Wagner and Brahms their proxies in a culture war that dragged on for years after the composers’ deaths. Although 20 years older than Brahms, Wagner represented the progressive faction. Part high priest, part revolutionary, he aimed to create the “music of the future,” a distillation of all the arts culminating in his “universal music drama.” Liberal-minded and relatively modest (or at least not messianic), Brahms was cast, perhaps by default, as the conservative. Most of his compositions could be classified as absolute music—free, at least explicitly, of any programmatic associations—and he chose to adapt conventional forms rather than invent new ones.
Yet the composers admired each other, in a lopsided way. During a visit in 1864, Brahms, a superb pianist, played for the maestro, who intoned equivocally, “One sees what may still be done in the old forms when someone comes along who knows how to use them.” In his diary he recorded, somewhat grudgingly, that Brahms was “no joke.” Brahms, by contrast, collected and studied Wagner scores, repeatedly declaring that he was “the best of Wagnerians.” When he was notified of Wagner’s death, he put down his conductor’s baton and announced, “Today we sing no more. A master has died.”
A very fine organist passed on a fellow very fine organist‘s compliments on my recent annotations to his recital today on the Lay Family Organ at the Meyerson in Dallas, and he even urged patrons to read them, which goes way beyond my wildest expectations for this Sunday. Obviously, getting compliments is a nice boost in general (unless, I guess, the compliments are coming from actual Nazis—poor Orff!), but for me, someone who is constantly aware of my overall organ ignorance, especially when it comes to the technical details that are at the very heart of organ artistry, I know just about enough to feel unequal to the task. At any rate, I’m always especially nervous about writing organ notes because I’m not an organist. I do know several organists, though, and I know how scrupulous and knowledgeable they are (and how likely to notice errors). One of my favorite classical critics, the prolific freelancer and longtime Dallas Morning News critic Scott Cantrell, trained as an organist, and I know he attends all those concerts. I have extra incentive not to screw up and embarrass myself in front of someone I respect so much.
Most of all, though, I don’t want to mess up the organ notes because I genuinely believe that more people would be interested in the pipe organ and its glorious repertoire if they knew more about it. I do not want to be a bad ambassador. Speaking for myself, I probably wouldn’t have become interested in the pipe organ if I hadn’t happened to have wandered into a free recital at the Notre-Dame Cathedrale in Paris, when I was a cash-poor and awe-struck 19-year-old fille au pair from Missouri who had never visited a city bigger than Chicago or older than New Orleans. If there was a program, I didn’t see it, and to this day I can’t remember what I heard, only that I loved the way the chords inhabited my body for a time, how the sounds could be felt as well as heard, inscribed on my musculoskeletal system like notes on staff paper.
To this day I feel certain that more lives would be greatly enriched by regular exposure to the king of instruments. You could listen to nothing but J.S. Bach fugues for the rest of your life and still find plenty to discover, but you don’t have to stop there, and you won’t want to after you get to the rest of the repertoire. Maybe you will find yourself drawn to the Bachian rigors of Max Reger, or the trance-inducing tintinnabulations of Arvo Pärt, or the languorous chromaticism and birdsong mimicry of Olivier Messiaen, or the sublime and inimitable Franckness of César Franck, but I urge you to give it a shot, especially if you associate the pipe organ with dreary sermons or civic occasions (in which case, I prescribe an immediate dose of Charles Ives’s organ music, stat!).
I’m already falling behind on both my blog content goals and my annotation schedule from my miraculously patient clients, so here are my program notes for the wonderful Christian Schmitt program. Insofar as all my links seem to be going bad, I’ll just cut and paste them from my Word document rather than linking you to the Dallas Symphony website, where they also appeared, as well as in the printed program. I extend my eternal thanks to all the organists who keep this vital art form alive. And the rest of you should try to find a local pipe organ recital in your cities and see if this music speaks to you the way it does to me and so many others.
Schmitt Organ Recital
By René Spencer Saller
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750): Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor, BWV 582
Although regionally famous for his mind-bending organ improvisations and locally infamous for his hot temper, Bach lived in relative obscurity. He spent his entire life in Germany, where he was born. As an organist, a court musician, a choir master, a music teacher, and the father of 20 children, he was probably too busy to tour the continent. Yet somehow he cranked out more than a thousand compositions, in every major genre except opera. Many scholars estimate that he wrote about twice that much. Although few of his compositions were published during his lifetime and most of his original manuscripts were lost, his contributions to the solo organ repertoire are incalculable: at least 200 known works.
The Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor is among the finest of these. The passacaglia form calls for a series of variations over a repeated bass figure (basso ostinato—Italian for “obstinate bass”), usually in 3/4 or 3/2 meter. The genre was already more than a century old when Bach composed this, his only surviving organ passacaglia, probably in Weimar between 1708 and 1712. Somewhat unconventionally, he crossed the passacaglia with a chaconne—a related form that also features a basso ostinato—and created a spectacular double fugue.
Arvo Pärt (b. 1935): Annum per annum for Solo Organ
When Pärt was born, his native Estonia was an independent Baltic state. Five years later, the Soviet Union launched an occupation that would last for the next half-century (not counting a three-year stint under German rule). Although he attended conservatory, Soviet bureaucrats went to great lengths to prevent Pärt and his peers from hearing any music created outside the Soviet Union, aside from a few contraband scores and tapes here and there.
Although commentators today call him a “holy minimalist,” Pärt first embraced the neoclassicism of Bartók, Shostakovich, and Prokofiev before shifting to the serialism of Schoenberg. Most of the music Pärt preferred was banned by Soviet censors. Frustrated, he immersed himself in the study of plainsong and Gregorian chant—the sacred roots of early European polyphony. By focusing on the distant past, he found an original voice: austere, tonal, liturgical, and deceptively simple. He was particularly inspired by a technique he called tintinnabulation, which refers to the ringing of bells, or more specifically, to the way that sound resonates, how it blooms and decays in space over time.
In 1980 Pärt fled the Soviet Union for Vienna, later settling in Berlin. That same year he composed the organ mass Annum per annum for the 950th anniversary of the Speyer Dome Church. The mass is dedicated to Saint Mary, Mother of God and the guardian of the dome; to Emperor Conrad II, the founder of the dome; to St. Cecilia, the patroness of musicians; and to Leo Krämer, the organist at Speyer Dome Church who premiered the piece.
Annum per annum consists of five movements, all variations on cantus firmus, the literal Latin translation of which is “firm song.” In polyphonic music the term refers to the foundational melody, the source from which all subsequent musical procedures spring. Each of the five movements contains an introduction and coda, although Pärt indicates in the score that these may be omitted by the organist if desired. The movements are distinguished by the letters K, G, C, S, A, which refer to the five ordinary parts of the Catholic mass (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei).
Annum per annum is best known for its dramatic opening, in which the organist holds a gargantuan, loud-as-God chord, and then lets the notes dissipate as the air is shut off. The effect is experienced by the body as much as the mind—and who knows, maybe even the soul.
César Franck (1822–1890): Choral No. 3 in A Minor
As a composer, Franck was something of a late bloomer, although his life in music began quite early. His greedy father bullied him into the role of child prodigy on the piano-recital circuit, and he was relieved when the passage of time ended that phase of his career. Introspective and painfully awkward, he preferred poring over his counterpoint exercises and experimenting with new organ registrations. After angering his father by leaving the family home in his early 20s, he supported himself by teaching music.
A few years later, after his marriage, Franck became a church organist, a position he cherished and retained for the rest of his life. He was widely beloved by his apprentices and students at the Paris Conservatoire, who called him Pater seraphicus (Seraphic Father). His harmonic language was indelibly marked by the magnificent Cavaillé-Coll instrument that he played for more than 30 years at Ste. Clotilde. Its rich array of stops allowed Franck to create the unique sounds and textures that characterized his compositions.
In the summer of 1890, Franck suffered a head injury after a horse-drawn trolley collided with the cab in which he was riding. Although he dismissed his symptoms as minor, they quickly worsened, and before long he could barely walk, much less fulfill his duties at the Conservatoire. He hoped to recover over vacation, and he felt well enough to compose three remarkable Chorals in just two months, completing Choral No. 1 on August 10, Choral No. 2 on September 12, and Choral No. 3 less than two weeks later. But almost as soon as he resumed teaching, he caught a cold that turned into pneumonia. He died on November 8, 1890.
The Choral No. 3 in A Minor, the last of the set, opens with a glittering two-part Toccata surrounding a lyrical Adagio, which introduces a new theme, rapturously sung by the Trompette over soft accompaniment. Although the Choral is consistent with genre conventions, Franck finds ingenious ways to combine his three main themes, weaving them into a spectacular polyphonic tapestry. You might detect the influence of Liszt, particularly his “Weinen, Klagen” Variations, as well as traces of Bach and Beethoven, but Franck retains his unmistakable Franckness throughout: psychedelic but also heavy, an unlikely mixture of the delicately ornate and the sludgy-visceral.
A quick note on nomenclature: the word choral, as Franck understood it, refers not to the chorale, or Lutheran hymn-melody, but simply to an original theme harmonized in the style of a chorale.
Theo Brandmüller (1948–2012): “Die Kruezigung” (The Crucifixion) and “Pieta” from Sieben StückezurPassionszeit (Seven Works for Passiontide)
Born in Mainz, Germany, Brandmüller began making his first public appearances as a pianist and composer while still in his teens. From 1968 to 1972, he studied music education and sacred music in Mainz and Detmold. He underwent additional training in composition with Giselher Klebe from 1970 to 1975, then with Mauricio Kagel in Cologne and Cristóbal Halffter in Madrid. In 1977 and ’78, Brandmüller studied organ with Gaston Litaize and composition with Olivier Messiaen in Paris before transitioning to a teaching career. At the time of his death in 2012, following a sudden illness, Brandmüller was a professor of composition, analysis, and organ improvisation at the Hochschule für Musik Saar, in Saarbrücken, Germany, and the recipient of many international awards and prizes.
Brandmüller composed Sieben Stücke zur Passionsveit, from which “Die Kruezigung” and “Pieta” are extracted for this performance, in 1983. In addition to organ, it is scored for metronome and speaking voice. Brandmüller was at the console for the world premiere on April 26, 1983, at the St. Georg parish church in Mainz.
The Composer Speaks
“The thoughts of the seven small musically related pieces revolve around the events of the Passion. Realistically ‘described’ details of the passion theme become—increasingly clear—visions; melodic sound-shapes emerge from the rhythmically bizarre initial position; the central piece, The Sweat Cloth (of Veronica), thanks to its sound mirrored form, is a reflection of today’s situation, our current situation!
“A sarabande (The Crucifixion) and a circular canon on ‘Dona nobis pacem’ (from Bach’s Mass in B Minor) conclude the cycle.
“All seven pieces are inspired by the passion cycle of the sculptor Richard Hess, whose unembellished, deeply felt reliefs begin to speak musically.” —Theo Brandmüller
Born in Lyon in 1844, Widor seemed destined to serve the king of instruments. His father was the organist at Saint-François-de-Sales for more than 50 years. Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, who revolutionized the pipe organ for the French Romantic age, was a family friend. In 1870 Widor was hired temporarily to play organ at Saint-Sulpice, in Paris. He held on to the job until 1934, just a few years before his death at 93. (He was even buried in the crypt of Saint-Sulpice.) Among his many compositions are 10 organ symphonies; three symphonies for orchestra with organ; and Bach’s Memento, six original arrangements of music by J.S. Bach.
Nicknamed after the architectural style of the two churches to which they were dedicated—the gothic Saint-Ouen abbey church in Rouen and the Romanesque basilica of Saint-Sernin in Toulouse—Widor’s last two symphonies represent his crowning achievement for organ. The Ninth, or “Gothic,” repurposes the Christmas Day Introit “Puer natus est nobis” (Unto us a Child is born), and the 10th, or “Romane,” uses the Easter Gradual “Haec dies quam fecit Dominus” (This is the day the Lord has made). In honoring the churches, these two symphonies also pay tribute to the organ builder, Cavaillé-Coll, whose state-of-the-art instruments grace each structure—and inform the music of each symphony. Widor himself debuted the “Gothic” in its namesake church in Rouen.
Widor’s “Romane” Symphony takes full advantage of the rich sonorities available on the Saint-Sernin’s Cavaillé-Coll. In his later years, Widor came to believe that organ music should derive its themes from sacred music; his 10th Symphony, like its predecessor, is steeped in plainsong.
In his preface to the published score, Widor described his Easter Gradual “Haec dies” theme as “an elegant arabesque ornamenting a text of several words—about 10 notes per syllable—a vocalise as elusive as birdsong; a sort of pedal-point conceived for a virtuoso free of restraint. The only means of holding the listener’s attention with so fluid a theme is to repeat it incessantly. Such is the plan of this movement that sacrifices everything to the subject. Here and there the composer has somewhat timidly embarked in development, but this departure is quickly abandoned and the original plan of the work resumes.”
Franz Liszt (1811–1886): “Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen”—Präludium nach J. S. Bach
Franz Liszt, the first superstar piano virtuoso, retired from concertizing at the peak of his fame, when he was 35 years old. A year later, the handsome and charismatic Hungarian set up house in Weimar with Princess Carolyne von Sayn Wittgenstein, whom he had met on his last tour and hoped to marry, pending a papal dispensation. While Liszt served as Kapellmeister to the Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar, he also cultivated a flock of eager young acolytes, including his daughter Cosima’s future first husband, Hans von Bülow. Up to that point Liszt had only played organ once in public, but he was a quick study. He composed most of his organ music during these Weimar years, while also conducting the works of other composers he admired, especially Beethoven; Berlioz; and his second future son-in-law, Richard Wagner, for whom Cosima left Bülow.
One composer Liszt held in particular esteem was J.S. Bach, who had, more than a century earlier, spent several productive years in Weimar. In fact, Bach was working in Weimar when he composed the church cantata “Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen” (“Weeping, lamenting, fretting, fearing”), BWV 12, for Jubilate, the third Sunday after Easter. He led the first performance at the court chapel in Weimar on April 22, 1714, the same year that he was appointed Konzertmeister, a post that required him to write and perform a new church cantata every month.
One reason for Liszt’s renewed interest in the organ: Bach’s complete organ works, which had only recently been published for the first time. Among Liszt’s first completed works in Weimar were his piano transcriptions of a half-dozen of Bach’s preludes and fugues for organ.
Liszt composed his variations on “Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen” in 1859, as a prelude for solo piano. After his daughter Blondine died in 1862, he extended the prelude into a set of 30 variations, turning it into a kind of elegy for her. He transcribed the work for organ the next year, while living in Rome, where he had moved in a last-ditch (and ultimately futile) effort to get the Pope to annul his lover’s marriage.
One of the greatest-ever native Missouri songwriters died yesterday, on February 8, 2023: Burt Bacharach, born on May 12, 1928, in Kansas City, Missouri. It seems presumptuous to hope that the immortal pop genius, whose music I have been enjoying since I was in utero, will rest in peace any more peacefully if I pipe in to mark his passing, and everyone knows that 94 is a ripe old age indeed. Even so, it seems only right to observe that we won’t see his likes again: a songwriter who could write for so many distinctive voices and somehow make them sound more distinctively themselves without sacrificing what made his own songs, especially his collaborations with lyricist Hal David, so instantly recognizable. Despite being a fine pianist and a serviceable singer, Bacharach was a songwriter in the pure composer tradition: an artist who wrote primarily for other voices. I suppose I should mention that he studied with one of my classical-music heroines, the iconic Nadia Boulanger, especially since this blog is mostly about classical music, but Boulanger has been dead a lot longer, and I’m not likely to give up my campaign to make her a household name anytime soon. So.
Here’s a song my mom put on the family turntable often, a song I loved from the first instant I heard it. She summarized the plot of the movie Alfie for me in such a way that makes me never want to see the movie, and not because she made it sound terrible but because she made it seem more beautiful than I’m guessing it actually was, and I know that’s mostly because of the power of this song. The song tells me all I need to know, and it’s perfect.
Thank you for giving this nonbeliever something to believe in.
Please know that if I did not successfully embed this video, you can seek it out yourself on YouTube. Just look for Dionne Warwick singing “Alfie,” then go ahead and do yourself a favor and listen to all the Bacharach songs that pop up in your feed or in your subconscious memory. I’m sure if you have been sentient for longer than a half-decade, you’ll know at least a few of them by heart.
So far this week, I have rewritten some notes* about a contemporary composer for a major new client—some notes that may well end up translated into French when the piece is performed in Paris—and I have also reviewed numerous proofs and edited several performer bios, among other satisfying duties associated with my various music-related freelance jobs, but my most exciting achievement by far is the progress I just made befriending the neighborhood murder. I don’t care if my neighbors think I’m crazy (although I can’t help hoping they didn’t overhear my shrill endearments to the uppermost branches of the silver maple) because I’m certain that the crows understood and are beginning to associate me with the corn and other seed. Once I’m sure they trust me, and possibly as soon as tomorrow, I’m going to make them some hardboiled eggs. Share your corvid inducements in the comments section if you have wisdom to share! (I hear they like roadkill, but I’m not prepared to acquire or handle it.)
*I will share them once they’re in print. I’m too superstitious to say much more until then.
Just to get this out of the way first, I had some trepidations when I started this biography. As a native St. Louisan, I feel reflexively defensive about Chuck Berry and his complicated legacy, which in many ways mirrors the city that spawned him (us). As with most native St. Louisans, there aren’t too many degrees of separation between us. Decades before I got to interview Chuck Berry in person, I heard story after story from people who met him or knew him or had minor dealings with him. My own mom, a public schoolteacher who moonlighted as a waitress for extra money, served him and one of his very young blond dates on a couple of occasions. She said he was polite and friendly and a good tipper. A perfect gentleman–who was fucking an apparent teenager.
Berry is definitely the most charismatic person I have ever met and probably the most significant person I have ever interviewed, and I didn’t get much time with him–maybe 20 minutes or a half-hour, and I wasn’t allowed to use a tape recorder, which both amused and irritated me, since I’m a stickler for quoting people precisely, and, to put it mildly, Chuck Berry resists paraphrase. He had the most peculiar and poetic way of phrasing things, a sort of ur-Country Grammar lexicon that is impossible to replicate. Some of his gnomic locutions reminded me of my late grandmother’s sayings; others seemed unique to him. After our interview, I literally ran to my office and transcribed my notes right away, so I would be able to capture as much of that sui generis voice as possible. I could still hear his voice ringing like a bell in my brain, and I could still feel the grasp of his enormous hand, the force of his singular star power. Most celebrities (especially septuagenarian celebrities, as he was at the time) seem smaller and more ordinary in real life. Not Chuck Berry, though: even eating chicken wings in a goofy captain’s cap, he was majestic, mysterious, suffused with dark energy disguised as mere genius.
I knew before I started Smith’s comprehensive and unstintingly honest but enormously sympathetic biography that his would need to be an unauthorized biography. Berry was protective of his privacy and his legacy, and his family no doubt feels that Berry’s own biography is definitive. But as fantastic as Berry’s autobiography is (for one thing, it replicates his voice exactly, which makes sense since he actually wrote it), it conceals as much or more than it reveals. This is going to sound like a strange comparison, but in many ways Smith’s great challenge is similar to the one faced by Jan Swafford in writing about Johannes Brahms, another genius perv who wore mask over mask over mask and drenched every meaningful extramusical statement in irony. With a subject as complex and contradictory as Berry or Brahms, how can the biographer tell if you have found his “true” self and not another mask? More likely the “true” self is this multitudinous assemblage of lies, myths, delusions, and unconscious compulsions, but it takes a biographer as talented as Swafford or Smith to present the subject in all its irreducible complexity. It helps that they’re both very good at writing about music qua music, which is, after all, the language Berry and Brahms spoke best.
Despite my pledge to use the library rather than buy more books, I ended up ordering a copy of Chuck Berry: An American Life after I finished the library book. I don’t write about pop music anymore, so I won’t use this as a research source the way I refer to my Swafford bios or my music encyclopedias, but I want to have this in my collection, and I want to be able to press it into the hands of the next blowhard fool who says something ignorant and dismissive about the man who gave my city, nation, and world so many priceless gifts.
In the event that anyone wants to read my short interview with Berry, I cut-and-pasted it below, since it’s old enough to be getting unsearchable, at least in the existing RFT archives:
Riverfront Times, October 17, 2001 Somewhere around the middle of the long, long list of things that make Radar Station sad, somewhere between kitten torture and the demise of the bustle in ladies’ skirt fashions, is the fact that St. Louis rock icon Chuck Berry doesn’t get the respect he deserves in his own hometown. Sure, he’s got a bronze star on Delmar, his monthly gigs at the Blueberry Hill Duck Room always sell out, and Gov. Bob Holden and Mayor Francis Slay are scheduled to present him with “proclamations of his greatness” at his big birthday bash at the Pageant on Oct. 18. These honors notwithstanding, when your garden-variety St. Louis hipster utters Berry’s name, it’s likely to lead to a crack about coprophilia and underage girls, not a serious discussion about his astonishing musical legacy.
It’s partly his own fault. Anyone who’s seen Berry in concert recently is painfully aware that he phones in his performances more often than not, seldom bothering to rehearse with his pickup bands or even tune his guitar. No one held a gun to his head when he outfitted his employee bathrooms with hidden video cameras. No one forced him to record the staggeringly stupid novelty jingle “My Ding-a-Ling.” But what does it say about the kitten-torturing, bustle-slighting world we live in that this infantile paean to Berry’s illustrious pee-pee remains his all-time biggest hit, bigger than “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Little Queenie,” “Maybellene,” “Nadine (Is It You?)” and “No Particular Place to Go”? What does it say about us that we’d rather make poop jokes than talk about the poetic brilliance of lyrics such as “with hurry-home drops on her cheeks” or “as I was motorvatin’ over the hill” or “campaign-shouting like a Southern diplomat”? Indeed, we’re mindless sheep, too busy playing with our own ding-a-lings to appreciate the legend who duck-walks among us.
In the end, of course, it doesn’t matter whether we make dumb gibes or issue proclamations. Berry’s legacy is right there on his records: those slithery, wild, scabrous guitar licks; those groin-grinding jump rhythms, that heady elixir of honky-tonk and R&B — the very essence of rock & roll, in all of its primitive, spastic, id-centered glory. Without Berry’s quicksilver genius, rock music as we know it would not, could not exist.
Radar Station had the singular pleasure of interviewing the brown-eyed handsome man in person last week, when he met with us at Blueberry Hill. At nearly three-quarters of a century, Berry looks dapper and alert. Wearing a black windbreaker and his signature captain’s hat, he sits at the head of the table, in front of an uneaten basket of hot wings and a glass of what looks like orange juice. He urges us to move closer — not because he’s trying to get fresh with us but because he’s a little hard of hearing. Radar Station (who suddenly feels too cute to be 9,460,800 minutes over 17) finds his gallantry irresistible, if absurd. He fixes his cloudy black eyes on our face and, when asked how he’d like to be remembered, politely informs us that he doesn’t care. “People’s opinions can’t be altered,” he observes cheerfully. “Realizing this, I’ve found much pleasure and peace.” Asked to name his favorite song, he says, “It’s just like kids — how can you say you love your boy more than your girl, your angel more than your brat?”
Berry doesn’t seem to mind being interviewed, but he doesn’t like to indulge in freeform reminiscence: “A guy came in, some college student. He set down a hand tape-recorder, and he said, ‘Chuck, I’ve been waiting for this moment for six years. Go ahead and talk.’ I said, ‘Well, then, we’re done now. You ask the questions — I’ll answer anything you ask, but I’m not just going to talk. You can even ask me what kind of underclothes I’m wearing, and I’ll tell you.'” Radar Station, a helpless literalist, takes the bait and asks him. “Good ones,” he responds with a wide, sly grin. “Briefs today, but I own a variety.”
Having established this important information, we ask whether he has any comment on the lawsuit his longtime pianist Johnnie Johnson filed recently, wherein Johnson claims that he deserves co-writing credit on most of Berry’s classic songs. “It’s not Johnnie that’s doing this,” Berry says sadly. “I’ve known him 40 years. Someone inspired him to go along with him and seek their desire to try for an easy dollar. At the Pageant’s grand opening, I talked to him for 20 minutes in the dressing room. At that time, I didn’t know [about the lawsuit]. If I would have known, I would have popped the question: ‘Hey, baby! What’s up with that?’ But he never said a mumbling word.”
Berry, who intends to keep rocking for the next 20 years, isn’t holding grudges. Besides playing out regularly, he’s recording a new album, which has been on the back burner since 1978. He claims he’s written nine new songs, but he doesn’t want to estimate a release date. “I thought last March, but I might as well not predict anymore. It will take the application of time, will and effort,” he says. Berry’s daughter and son, among others, will probably back him up. “I have to let them do something, or else I’ll pay family dues,” he cackles. “Even Keith Richards or Johnnie Johnson — I’d welcome them if they wanted to play. A lot of people would be surprised. All I want is a good song.”
Chuck Berry celebrates his 75th birthday on Thursday, Oct. 18, at the Pageant, with special guest Little Richard.